Special Education

Studies Examine Racial Disparities In Special Education

By Lisa Fine — March 14, 2001 5 min read
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Black students are classified as needing special education far more often than white students, and are less likely, once they have been identified as having disabilities, to be placed in mainstream classrooms, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

The report, based on four studies commissioned by the Harvard project, offers fresh statistics on minority representation in special education, long an issue of concern among advocates for racial and ethnic minority groups. For example, the studies found that African-American students were three times more likely than white students to be labeled mentally retarded, and therefore relegated to less challenging special education classes.

Authors of the report, released March 2, view bias against minorities as at least partially responsible for the disparities.

For More Information

Additional information is available from the “Minority Issues in Special Education,” from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

“Despite some far-reaching improvements, both racial and disability discrimination persists,” said Harvard education professor Gary Orfield, a leading expert on school desegregation who co-directs the Civil Rights Project with Harvard law professor Christopher Edley Jr. “As a result, minority children deemed eligible for special education are in jeopardy of being discriminated against on the grounds of both race and disability.”

But not all observers agreed that the studies had found evidence of racial or ethnic discrimination.

“It stands to reason that more minorities are in special education because they are poorer,” said Jorge E. Amselle, a spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based group that takes a generally conservative stand on racial and ethnic issues in education. “It’s more a matter of apathy than racial discrimination.”

Socioeconomic factors, especially poverty, have long been cited as a potential explanation for disproportionately high numbers of black students in certain categories of disability, including mental retardation. But the author of one of the new studies, researcher Donald Oswald of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, suggested that his findings indicated that other factors could be at play. Specifically, Mr. Oswald found that the wealthier the school district, the more likely black males were to be labeled mentally retarded and sent to special classes.

“Why is it happening more in wealthier communities: Is it because black students stand out? Is it because they are the poor in that area? Are the schools looking at those kids differently?” Mr. Oswald said. “There are people around the country who would say that without a doubt there was discrimination.”

Vigilance Urged

About 11 percent of all students nationwide receive special education services. In 1998, approximately 1.5 million minority children were identified as having mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or a specific learning disability.

Pointing to 1997 data from the U.S. Department of Education, the Civil Rights Project report says that, nationally, black students were 2.9 times more likely than whites to be identified as having mental retardation. They were 1.9 times more likely to be identified with an emotional problem, and 1.3 times more likely to be identified with a specific learning disability.

The report also says that minority students in special education were not likely to be returned to regular classes.

“To the extent that minority students are misclassified, segregated, or inadequately served, special education can contribute to a denial of equality of opportunity, with devastating results in communities throughout the nation,” the report states.

Bill East, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said the findings saddened him. “School districts and states should be concerned about the way they identify special education students,” he said. “They need to look at programs and practices very closely and do everything they can to make sure that the problems the studies brought out are not happening in their districts.”

John Jackson, the national director of education for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, suggested that the report points to “the need for better assessment and placement in special education.”

“We need better teacher training, more resources for special education, and a change in attitude,” Mr. Jackson said. “Special education is not a final resting place for students. It should in some cases put them on an accelerated plan to get them back into regular education.”

Mr. Jackson said parents could help the situation by speaking up for their children. “Parents need to advocate whether or not their child needs special education,” he said. “If they don’t need it, they should fight that classification. If they do need it, they should make sure they have all the services they need.”

Mr. Amselle of the Center for Equal Opportunity suggested that the problem highlighted in the report “reflects a system that feels overwhelmed.”

“It’s easy to put a kid in special ed and write them off,” he said. “It’s an easy way to get the problem kids out of the classroom.”

The Civil Rights Project authors recommend that the Education Department’s office for civil rights take a more aggressive stance against districts with disproportionately large numbers of minority students in special education. The report also calls on states to intervene in districts where minority students are overrepresented in special education classes.

The report prompted U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., to call for a federal investigation into the issue of minority overrepresentation in special education.

“On behalf of the millions of all children attending public schools, I am requesting that you immediately launch an investigation into this matter by the Department of Education and by the civil rights division of the Justice Department,” Rep. Fattah wrote in a letter to President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige. “If you truly believe that ‘All of our [nation’s] citizens are created equal, and must be treated equally,’ then you will agree that racial discrimination has no place in our society, particularly not in our public school system.”

Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said the department commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences on the issue in 1999 and awaits its recommendations, which are expected in the fall. She said that the agency’s office for civil rights monitors minority placements in special education, and that the problems highlighted in the report were nothing new.

“We have seen the Harvard studies and are concerned about the correlation between race and special education placement,” Ms. Kozberg said. “But we are awaiting the results of our own study.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Studies Examine Racial Disparities In Special Education

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